Excerpt from "North and South"

From North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.

‘Is there necessity for calling it a battle between the two
classes?’ asked Mr. Hale. ‘I know, from your using the term, it
is one which gives a true idea of the real state of things to
your mind.’

‘It is true; and I believe it to be as much a necessity as that
prudent wisdom and good conduct are always opposed to, and doing
battle with ignorance and improvidence. It is one of the great
beauties of our system, that a working-man may raise himself into
the power and position of a master by his own exertions and
behaviour; that, in fact, every one who rules himself to decency
and sobriety of conduct, and attention to his duties, comes over
to our ranks; it may not be always as a master, but as an
over-looker, a cashier, a book-keeper, a clerk, one on the side
of authority and order.’

‘You consider all who are unsuccessful in raising themselves in
the world, from whatever cause, as your enemies, then, if I
under-stand you rightly,’ said Margaret’ in a clear, cold voice.

‘As their own enemies, certainly,’ said he, quickly, not a little
piqued by the haughty disapproval her form of expression and tone
of speaking implied.

But, in a moment, his straightforward
honesty made him feel that his words were but a poor and
quibbling answer to what she had said; and, be she as scornful as
she liked, it was a duty he owed to himself to explain, as truly
as he could, what he did mean. Yet it was very difficult to
separate her interpretation, and keep it distinct from his
meaning. He could best have illustrated what he wanted to say by
telling them something of his own life; but was it not too
personal a subject to speak about to strangers? Still, it was the
simple straightforward way of explaining his meaning; so, putting
aside the touch of shyness that brought a momentary flush of
colour into his dark cheek, he said:

‘I am not speaking without book. Sixteen years ago, my father
died under very miserable circumstances. I was taken from school,
and had to become a man (as well as I could) in a few days. I had
such a mother as few are blest with; a woman of strong power, and
firm resolve. We went into a small country town, where living was
cheaper than in Milton, and where I got employment in a draper’s
shop (a capital place, by the way, for obtaining a knowledge of
goods). Week by week our income came to fifteen shillings, out of
which three people had to be kept. My mother managed so that I
put by three out of these fifteen shillings regularly. This made
the beginning; this taught me self-denial. Now that I am able to
afford my mother such comforts as her age, rather than her own
wish, requires, I thank her silently on each occasion for the
early training she gave me. Now when I feel that in my own case
it is no good luck, nor merit, nor talent,–but simply the habits
of life which taught me to despise indulgences not thoroughly
earned,–indeed, never to think twice about them,–I believe that
this suffering, which Miss Hale says is impressed on the
countenances of the people of Milton, is but the natural
punishment of dishonestly-enjoyed pleasure, at some former period
of their lives. I do not look on self-indulgent, sensual people
as worthy of my hatred; I simply look upon them with contempt for
their poorness of character.’

‘But you have had the rudiments of a good education,’ remarked
Mr. Hale. ‘The quick zest with which you are now reading Homer,
shows me that you do not come to it as an unknown book; you have
read it before, and are only recalling your old knowledge.’

‘That is true,–I had blundered along it at school; I dare say, I
was even considered a pretty fair classic in those days, though
my Latin and Greek have slipt away from me since. But I ask you,
what preparation they were for such a life as I had to lead? None
at all. Utterly none at all. On the point of education, any man
who can read and write starts fair with me in the amount of
really useful knowledge that I had at that time.’

‘Well! I don’t agree with you. But there I am perhaps somewhat of
a pedant. Did not the recollection of the heroic simplicity of
the Homeric life nerve you up?’

‘Not one bit!’ exclaimed Mr. Thornton, laughing. ‘I was too busy
to think about any dead people, with the living pressing
alongside of me, neck to neck, in the struggle for bread. Now
that I have my mother safe in the quiet peace that becomes her
age, and duly rewards her former exertions, I can turn to all
that old narration and thoroughly enjoy it.’

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